Earley notched a double-double with 20 points and 11 rebounds, while freshman point guard Dee Davis added 17 points, and seniors Hillary Hager and Jenni Benningfield had 16 each. Freshman guard Katie Antony and freshman post Carla Thomas chipped in 8 points each.
The Commodores started the game with an offensive explosion, jumping out to a 17-2 lead in the first five minutes of the game. Unlike the first exhibition game when All-American candidate Jenni Benningfield dominated the early scoring, four of Vanderbilt's five starters scored in the opening run.
But Athletes in Action began slowly chipping away into the big lead, cutting it back to 10 points at 27-17 at the 10:08 mark and closing the gap to just 6 points at 32-26 with 6:37 left in the first half.
Then Ashley Earley grabbed the offensive board from a missed shot by Carla Thomas, put it back and was fouled in the process. She missed the free throw, but got her own rebound and dished to Hillary Hager, who sank the basket to restore the Vanderbilt lead to 11 points at 36-25.
And that's where it stayed for the rest of the half, with the lead up a little, down a little, but hovering around 10 points until the Commodores took at 47-38 into the halftime intermission.
Vanderbilt opened the second half with another solid start offensively. Freshman guard Katie Antony got things going with a jumper, and Dee Davis scored on the fast break following a steal by Hager. The Commodores' advantage inched up to 15 points when Earley scored on an inbounds play with 13:33 left.
A 3-pointer by freshman guard Cherish Stringfield pushed the lead to 16 at 69-53 with 11:26 remaining. Later, when Davis grabbed a defensive board and went coast-to-coast for a basket and a free throw, the Commodores reached their biggest lead of the night at 19 points.
That mostly put an end to the fireworks. Athletes in Action nibbled at the lead, cutting it to 10 points once at 79-69 with about five minutes left-- but a couple of free throws by Hager and a 3-pointer from Antony put an end to the late comeback. The teams traded baskets until the final buzzer sounded.
Earley's 20 points led Vanderbilt was led in scoring, and her game-high 11 rebounds gave her a double-double for the evening. Davis scored 17 points, grabbed 6 rebounds and dished out 6 assists. Jenni Benningfield and Hillary Hager each had 16 points, while Carla Thomas and Katie Antony each had 8.
Five players scored in double figures for Athletes in Action, led by Mandy Arndtson (16) and Katie Voight (14), followed by Lisa Eckart (12), Jen Roulier (11) and Gracey Guerrette (11).
For the game, Vanderbilt shot 54.7% from the field (50% from 3-point range) compared to 44.1% (37.5% from 3-point range) for Athletes in Action. The Commodores out-rebounded AIA 37-28 and had 16 turnovers while AIA had 19. Perhaps the most striking statistic was points in the paint, where Vanderbilt out-scored AIA 46-26.
The game completes Vanderbilt's exhibition season. The regular season begins Friday in Burlington, Vt., when the Commodores meet South Alambama in the first round of the Banknorth Classic.
POST GAME PRESS CONFERENCE
Coach Balcomb: I think the big thing was we were ready to play, and I was really glad to see us start the way we did, and I felt like we started the second half really ready to play. I think those were the biggest positives, just being ready to play in both halves at the start, and that's probably where the difference in the game was.
At halftime I was concerned with how many times we were sending them to the free throw line, and I was also concerned about checking out. Every time we gave them an offensive board, they kicked it out and converted and converted on every offensive rebound they got, so at halftime we were really trying to do a better job of checking out and not sending them to the free throw line so much.
I think we did a better with the free throw line, but I think we still need to work on checking out. And i think the other thing defensively is that we really need to do a better job on the ball and cutting off the drive.
The Press: Ashley looked awfully active out there tonight, playing with a lot of confidence.
Coach Balcomb: Yeah, I think Ashley's been playing like that all season in practice. In the first exhibition game, you didn't get to see that. I think she's getting more and more consistent with that kind of aggressive play and wanting the basketball and being confident, and it was nice to see her take it to a game today.
The Press: It also seemed like Dee had a steadier game tonight than in the first. Did you see that?
Coach Balcomb: Yeah. It's going to take some time. You're throwing a freshman into big time college basketball, and it's going to take some time. She's going to have to learn from her mistakes, and she's just so coachable, and she wants to learn. She's only going to get better and better because of her attitude, it's so good.
The Press: Is there any particular reason we didn't see Carla Thomas more in the second half?
Coach Balcomb: No.
The Press: How about Jenn Hall? Is she all right?
Coach Balcomb: She was sick. She had a concussion this week and got hurt in practice and did not practice the last practice before the game. She's getting over a mild concussion.
The Press: Yesterday?
Coach Balcomb: We were off yesterday. She did not practice the day before. So our last practice, she didn't play.
The Press: Coach, for this team to get to where you'd like it to be in March, what are the 3 things do you have to improve on?
Coach Balcomb: I think we have to improve defensively. That's an obvious one. We have to do a better job of guarding the basketball and rotating to help, the whole defensive scheme and checking out. I think we're going to be very explosive on offense. I think we ran better in transition than we did last game and that makes you very explosive. But we exploded at the beginning of the first half and then at the beginning of the second half, but then the rest of the game, we just let them hang around, and we can't do that because the teams we're going to play are going to come back, and we've got to be more consistent with our defense and not just rely so much on our offensive scoring. It's like we relax too much when we're hitting our shots, then we relax on defense, and we can't do that. We have to be able to put people away.
The Press: Coach, Hillary again just seems to be giving you whatever you need, which right now seems to be offense?
Coach Balcomb: Yeah, Hillary is the unsung hero. She's never going to get the credit, and she's never going to get the headlines. I just have to keep her on the floor. I can't take her out of the game. She does so many things right executing our offenses and our defenses, and she's really now starting to read the defense, and you're going to see her get better and better and a lot of that has to do with her confidence level. She's worked so hard that she just... she prepares better than any player I've ever seen. Her preparation is so good that-- When they made that run, she's the one who stepped up and hit that shot, and that's confidence that she had in our last game against Boston College, and that's great to see. We need to have that from her. I think you're ready to see her do a lot more than she did last year. She's just better at all the things she does well already with more confidence.
Coach Balcomb left the room, and senior forward Jenni Benningfield, senior guard Hillary Hager, and junior forward Ashley Earley took their places at the table for questions.
The Press: Jenni, It looked a little bit like the return of the high-low with you and Ashley. Was that a concerted effort, or was that just how things worked out tonight?
Jenni: I think Ashley and I really work well together. We're starting to understand where each other's going to be. It's working well. We both know we have to step up and take that role of having a high-low to get pressure off of the guards, because if our high-low's not working, that'll give options for the guards. So we both know we have to step up to that, and that's what we're trying to do.
The Press: Ashlely, can you talk a little bit about that, too. You seem to be looking for your shot more offensively. Is that the case?
Ashley: Yeah, pretty much. Coming into the season, Jenni's pre-season all-American, and we talk about it every day. She's going to be receiving a lot of double-teams, and as the other post player, I have to be a player every game. Every game I have to be ready to score.
Hillary: I don't know, personally I never pay too much attention to the polls, but I did notice and people have definitely come up and said, "You aren't ranked in the top 25," in a couple of polls, or whatever. I don't know-- I say that's OK, because we're maybe not the target this year. When we were like top 10, we were the target, but now maybe we're not so much that we can surprise a lot of people and just play the underdog role and come out and beat a lot of people.
Hillary: No, not at all. On the court, you're not thinking about that kind of stuff.
The Press: (Inaudible.)
Ashley: I think it's just getting ready for the season. Before the season, we lost Chantelle Anderson which was the bulk of our offense, and as a junior, I realized that it's time for me to step up. We have a lot of freshmen, and it was time for all of us to step up and lead them because they don't really understand how the SEC goes, how college basketball goes. So I think it was time for us to step up.
The Press: Do you feel a little more confident out there?
Ashley: Yes, a lot more. It's a tribute to the team. I feel like they have a lot more confidence in me. I'm sure it was always there, but I'm just now recognizing it. (Hillary and Jenni nod and laugh.) Me and Jenni have the high-low going on, and Hill has everything -- the post pass -- going on. We're learning more and playing more as a team.
The Press: Jenni, four players in double digits, five the other day. I guess for anybody who thought that you only have one established offensive player, I guess you all have shown them otherwise.
Jenni: Yeah, that's definitely a good sign for it being early, and everybody seems to be getting involved and with that, you're going to gain confidence, and that's what we were trying to do with these two exhibition games, kind of see where we're at and see what we need to do when we go back into practice and what we need to work on. I definitely think that's a good attribute to our team right now is knowing that it doesn't need to fall on one person, that everybody's going to be involved. It's going to take everybody to win basketball games. It's not going to take one person. It's going to take from the first person on the floor to the last person on the bench. It's gotta be everybody because you never know who's going to have a bad game, and people just have to know that they have to do their roles and step up when they need to step up.
Action photos of #32 Ashley Earley, #24 Hillary Hager, #3 Cherish Stringfield, #10 Dee Davis, and #4 Katie Antony and Jenni Benningfield, Hillary Hager and Ashley Earley at the press conference by Micah Miller for VandyMania.com. Click on thumbnails to view a larger image.